Walt Whitman 101
Few poets have had such lasting impact as Walt Whitman. Widely considered the American father of free verse, Whitman has been celebrated by poets from Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda to Langston Hughes and Patricia Lockwood. His irreverence inspired the surrealists, the Beats, and the New York School. Critic Harold Bloom called Leaves of Grass part of the “secular scripture of the United States.” Schools, malls, and bridges are named for him, and in the past few years, Levi’s and Apple have used his words to sell jeans and iPads.
However, although Whitman is a figure of mythic stature and popular appeal, his work remains strikingly provocative. Profuse, amorous, and candidly grand, his “barbaric yawp” defies all boundaries and borders, reminding readers of the radical possibilities inherent in the democratic ideal.
Whitman’s long road to poetic greatness seemed both unlikely and predestined. One of nine children, several of whom were named for American presidents, he left school at 11 but continued to educate himself while he apprenticed as a printer. For the first half of his life, his literary ambitions lay in journalism and fiction, and he worked for several New York newspapers. He didn’t write a book of poetry until he was 36, when, at his own expense, he first published Leaves of Grass, his great and lifelong work. Though he wrote other prose and poetry volumes over the course of his career, Whitman continually revised and reissued Leaves of Grass, adding to, removing from, rewriting, and reordering the book until his death. When Leaves was first published in 1855, it contained 12 poems; the final 1892 edition contains more than 400. His goal from the beginning was a kind of wholeness: a volume that gathered all of his work into one sustained epic.
If the size and scope of Leaves of Grass was itself audacious, its form and content were even more so. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which called for a distinctly American poetry, Whitman abandoned traditional poetic style and elevated language. He pioneered a unique type of free verse that combined spontaneous, prosaic rhythms with incantatory repetition that he found in the Old Testament; with it, he found a form to match his great subject: the unity and diversity of the limitless American self.
Walt Whitman, Kosmos
His earliest and most fundamental work, “Song of Myself,” carries egalitarianism to its further extent. In long lines and ecstatic catalogues, Whitman embraces everything and everyone—good and bad, male and female, free and not—as equal. Celebrating the individual as both a product of and vessel for the multitude, Whitman adopted the persona of the kosmos, a kind of visionary or seer, and channeled the voices of America—“I am the hounded slave,” he writes provocatively at one point. His praise of the carnal and corporeal was likewise provocative. As he proclaims in “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman saw the body and the soul as commensurate and touch as the basis for all personal and political connections.
Though it gained him a handful of admirers and detractors, the first edition of Leaves of Grass sold very poorly. In the years following its publication, Whitman lived an unsettled, bohemian life, and his work took a melancholic, personal turn. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” for example, tells the tale of his artistic birth but roots it in death and loss, and the invitation in his earlier “Song of the Open Road” stands in stark contrast to his warning in “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” that he is “not what you supposed.”
Skeptical as they can be, the poems of this period include some of Whitman’s most revolutionary work. “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” is a doubtful and inconclusive poem that prefigures the Modernist movement, and his “Calamus” sequence, first printed in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, is historic in its treatment of same-sex attraction and relationships. In comparison to the excited and explicit sexuality of his earlier work, “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing” and “A Glimpse” are meditative, even plaintive in tone. But in lingering on feelings that were, at the time, too obscene to mention, Whitman introduced a language of queer love that, as critics Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price write, was essential to the development of gay literature.
As befits his signature blending of self and state, the Civil War marked a major turning point in Whitman’s career. Traveling first to the front lines to visit his enlisted brother, and then onto Washington, DC, where he made a home during the war, Whitman became a troubadour of the battlefield. In “Beat! Beat! Drums!” he sings of the war’s inevitability, and poems such as “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” acutely capture its horrors. “The Wound-Dresser” describes Whitman’s remarkable experiences at military hospitals, where he nursed thousands of wounded soldiers and befriended many.
These years took a toll on Whitman: one of his brothers died, another was captured, and he watched as one of his dearest infatuations had his leg amputated. But these years also brought the publication of his book Drum-Taps and two of his most widely known poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!,” both written in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated at the end of the war.
The Good Gray Poet
Whitman was an avowed rabble-rouser—his abolitionist politics and explicit poetry lost him several jobs—but his image shifted in his later years to something more stately and sanctified. Despite declining health and financial instability, Whitman continued to write and even began to enjoy a certain amount of literary celebrity. He received numerous distinguished visitors, including Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oscar Wilde, at his home in Camden, New Jersey, where he relocated in 1873 after a stroke.
Inspired more and more by science and engineering, Whitman wrote poems such as “Passage to India,” which hails the opening of the Suez Canal and the rapidly globalizing world, and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which stages the conflict between scientific reason and cosmic experience. He continued to revise and expand Leaves of Grass and worked on several prose projects, including Specimen Days, which is an unconventional autobiography, and “Democratic Vistas,” an essay about Reconstruction-era America.
If the tone of his poetry grew increasingly laudatory, in “Vistas,” Whitman is at his most critical, excoriating a political culture “saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood” and “mal-administration.” But if America’s promise remained (or remains) unfulfilled, Whitman’s poetry reminds readers, even today, of democracy’s continuing potential.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.